Victorian popularizers of science: Designing nature for new audiences

Victorian popularizers of science: Designing nature for new audiences

Bernard Lightman

Chicago, US: University of Chicago Press 2007 | 545pp | ?20.00 (HB) ISBN 9780226481180

Reviewed by Bill Griffith 

After the Great Exhibition of 1851 and publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species  of 1859, the Victorian public were thirsty for knowledge of science and its applications. It was mainly professional writers, journalists and clerics rather than practising scientists who popularised science in Britain in the second half of the 19th century. The author of this book has limited himself to ’the most prolific, the most influential and the most interesting’ British popularisers in the second part of the 19th century - some 30 are considered.  

One chapter deals with practitioners who also popularised science. Thomas Huxley (1825-1893), the greatest of these, wrote (though chronically unable to meet deadlines) and lectured widely on a number of topics, and was of course ’Darwin’s bulldog’. His friend and contemporary, the great physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893), receives rather less attention, though we are told that he accidentally knocked a flask off the bench of the Royal Institution, leaped over the bench and caught the flask, to such acclaim that he repeated the feat later.   

Sadly, chemistry figures little in the book, partly perhaps because its main popularisers in that period were also deeply involved practitioners (Armstrong, Faraday and Frankland are briefly mentioned, but not Crookes or Hofmann). Jane Marcet’s highly popular and influential Conversations on Chemistry ( see Chemistry World  , June 2007, p 58), which inspired Faraday and many others is only fleetingly mentioned: admittedly it was published first in 1806, but reached a final (16th) edition in 1854. An entertaining chapter on showmen of science mentions John Henry Pepper (1821-1900), an analytical chemist who lectured and demonstrated chemistry and physics using optical illusions (’Pepper’s Ghosts’) and wrote a play (The Alchemist’s Daughter  ).  

This is a well-produced and amply referenced book, but perhaps of interest more to educationalists and social historians than to chemists.